Christopher Graham is an ELT teacher trainer and consultant. Based in London he works globally. You can read his blog here.
For fifteen years now I’ve been working as teacher trainer and ELT consultant – much of my time spent with NNESTs. For some years before that however, I made my living as a teacher recruiter – sending EFL teachers and senior staff to posts in schools and universities all over the world. Did I see many jobs that discouraged NNESTs from applying? You bet I did! The mantra “…. applicants need to be native speakers of English …” was all too common. It’s still common, but my sense is that things are somewhat better now but with plenty of work still to be done. In Europe the EU legal framework has helped a bit, but a glance at online ads will show the law is often flouted and I suspect prosecutions are rare. Sadly ELT is full of discrimination. Gender, age, sexuality and race. You name it, I’ve seen it. I once remember being told by a school principal that a candidate “doesn’t look like an EFL teacher”. I have to say I have no idea what an EFL teacher looks like, but what do I know?
What I hope to do in this piece is explore why there is still a native/non-native issue and look at some ideas for progressing the move towards equality. It seems to me that there are four ‘players’ involved in all this; the policy makers and those that make hiring decisions, the teachers, the students and the teacher trainers, consultants and conference speakers.
My assumption about those policy makers that decide who (or what type of who) will be recruited is that in most cases they would not recognise what they are doing as discrimination. I also assume that they do not do it out of malice of any kind. I think there are three motives at work. One might be the ‘accent issue’ – the idea that students will somehow be given an ‘incorrect’ model of English. And I’ve heard so many variations on that one over the years – Scottish, Texan and South African accents in particular seem to be frowned upon as well as NNESTs. The second motive I think is simply orthodoxy and inertia – “that’s what we’ve always done – we’ve never really thought about it.” The third motive is student expectation – the argument that students want a native speaker to teach them, and I think that’s the most common.
So let’s think about positive action number one. All of us who work on the consultancy side of ELT or speak at conferences and thus have access to policy makers and managers should seek out opportunities to lobby them, to reference the NNEST issue in our workshops and plenaries and generally make the case cogently and concisely. Change is possible and from the top down seems one way to drive it.
The issue about student expectation is an interesting one and the one where policy makers and managers are most likely to resist. I just wonder how many institutions have ever actually asked their student body about this issue or have they just stuck (out of fear?) with the strapline “our teachers are native speakers” as if that was all the students needed to know. I expect because of a history of being taught only by native speakers and being fed all the mythology that surrounds it, there is often some resistance from students to NNESTs. Students are not of course experts in language teaching so again we need to encourage institutions to engage with their student bodies and make the case. If they are prepared to. My personal experience of this is that students are very amenable to the idea if it is explained to them – in particular they respond well to the thought that a NNEST may have studied English at degree level for four or five years before they start teaching. One way of getting the message to students other than through the institutions is via local press, the internet and social media. There must be lots of us who support TEFL Equity Advocates globally able to get local coverage that makes the case for NNESTs in lay terms that non specialists can appreciate. So positive action number two – let’s get the message out to the learners.
Positive action number three involves the NNESTs themselves. In my CPD work I travel a great deal and run workshops largely with NNESTs. It is not uncommon to hear or see online that a ‘native speaker’ is coming to run a seminar. Whoopee! He must be good then! OK I fully accept that my sessions may be rather dull and that the most interesting thing about me is where I am from, but I hope my point stands. I make an effort in many of my sessions to take a proactive stance about NNESTs and pre-empt some of the anxieties that are often felt. I try to combine support and confidence building with a call to action. A call for NNESTs to teach loud and proud and to wipe away any self-doubt. So my third positive action is this. Those of us that blog, work in CPD, or speak at conferences need to boost the self–esteem of NNESTs. They are not part of our community, they are a majority in our community and their voices need to be heard. The campaign can also be led by the many high-profile NNESTs – regular teachers need to have some champions and to see that our community can be led by all and not just by the NESTs.
Some people reading this might wonder if I in my recruiting days would discriminate against NNSETs. The reality is that most recruiters want to hire NNESTs, after all what they want is more teachers to find jobs for. Their motives may be economic rather than philosophical but the results are positive. It is the employers that call the shots. That’s why the Tefl Equity Advocates hall of fame is so important. But to answer my own question, have I argued with clients and resisted requests to hire only NESTs? Yes I have. Have I lost the arguments and agreed to do what the client wants? Yes I have, as long as it was within the law at the time. As in so much of life, money talks. A poor defence perhaps, but an honest one.
For me it is the same as friends who ask why I do CPD work in countries with appalling human rights records. I do genuinely feel that ELT can be a force for good and for change. I really hope it can.
But we do need to get our own house in order.